Bryan Harsin ‘thriving’ away from football after rocky tenure at Auburn
IT’S BEEN NEARLY seven months since Bryan Harsin walked out of his football office at Auburn for the last time.
He did so with a $15.3 million parting gift — the kind of pricey buyout Auburn has become known for when it comes to fired football coaches — and a promise to himself and his family that his sights would remain straight ahead and not in the rearview mirror.
“I wasn’t going to let it eat at me, no matter how s—ty some of the things were that my family had to endure,” Harsin told ESPN recently in his first extended interview since being fired Oct. 31, 2022.
“There were things we didn’t like. There were things that were disappointing, on and off the field. There were things that I wish I would have done better, and there were things where we got a chance to see some of the worst in people.
“At the same time, here we are. We’re thriving.”
Harsin is back home in Boise, Idaho, with his family and a group of close friends, some of whom he went to college with at Boise State. He never sold his house when he made the move to Auburn on Dec. 22, 2020, and when he was fired 22 months later, it was an easy decision to head back. The return to Idaho has been therapeutic for Harsin and his family, really from the time he and wife Kes loaded their two dogs and embarked on the 33-hour cross-country drive back to Boise, where they first met as teenagers in junior high school.
“The person who bought our home in Auburn bought it as is, furniture and everything,” Harsin said. “We flew the kids back, and Kes and I jumped in the car. We drove through Mississippi and Louisiana, through rainstorms, through Colorado in the snow with a truck driver in front of us. We had a hell of a time.”
It was the start of Harsin seeing a life beyond coaching, which has made it easier to forget everything that went wrong at Auburn.
And a lot did go wrong.
THINGS started going wrong even before he had the Auburn job. His interview with the school, which was conducted over Zoom, had some glitches. “The screen went blank during the interview. I couldn’t see them, but they told me to keep on, so I kept rocking along,” Harsin said. “I walked out of my office, and my wife asked me how it went. I said, ‘I don’t know. The screen went blank, and I couldn’t even see them.'”
But that wasn’t the end of the technical difficulties. Harsin finished 9-12 in less than two seasons, losing 10 of his final 13 games, and never gained any real traction on the recruiting trail. He was viewed as an outsider by influential boosters from the time he stepped foot on campus and experienced a mass exodus of players and coaches following his first season.
Following the departures, a university-directed investigation into Harsin and his relationships with players and staff members left him in limbo for eight days. He was retained, but during that time, social media message boards were filled with ugly rumors about Harsin and his family and their personal lives. “Everything we were going through — these players, this program, the attacks on my character and my family — was bulls—,” Harsin told ESPN in the wake of the investigation.
Then, just before the start of Harsin’s second season in 2022, Allen Greene, the athletic director who hired him, stepped down as it was clear new university president Chris Roberts had no intention of renewing Greene’s contract.
Once again, Harsin was left in a difficult spot, or as one rival SEC coach told ESPN prior to last season, “cut off at the knees” in a league that chews up and spits out even the most established coaches. Harsin was fired after a home loss to Arkansas left Auburn with a 3-5 record. A statement from the school said Roberts “made the decision after a thorough review and evaluation of all aspects of the football program.”
“We dealt with it as a family, and it made us even closer, because that was the first real failure in a lot of ways because we were winning and had a lot of success everywhere else we’d been,” said Harsin, who won 10 or more games in five of his six full seasons as head coach at Boise State. He also was part of two undefeated seasons as the Broncos’ offensive coordinator under Chris Petersen.
Successful coaches don’t typically forget how to coach overnight. But for myriad reasons, the Harsin/Auburn marriage just never was a fit.
“You learn in every situation, the good and the bad,” Harsin said. “But when you really get tested as we were at Auburn, and it’s the same challenge for your players, your true colors are going to show in how you handle it. Certainly, there are things we could have done better and things we would have done differently if you could go back.
“But as a family, we stood on the things we believed in and held firm on those things. That was our foundation, and that’s the way we’re moving forward.”
HARSIN CAN’T SAY whether he will be ready to be back on the sideline for the 2024 season. The 46-year-old said he received some interest from schools after being fired, but nothing he felt was right.
Plus, he’s getting to do things that would have never been possible in the past. He’s enjoyed three-hour lunches with former teammates and old friends and spends mornings with his wife drinking coffee, working out and helping clean the house.
“Kes is probably enjoying it as much as I am, watching me go through all the things she has all these years,” Harsin said with a laugh. “The most important thing, though, is that we’re doing things. We’re not sitting around and moping and watching Netflix. We are active and out, and we are trying to better ourselves and take advantage of the time we have together.”
They went to see a Kane Brown concert, and Harsin is building a 1969 Mustang Mach 1, “a bad machine,” as he calls it. It takes him back to his days of racing drag cars at speeds of 200 mph when he finished high school. His father, Dale Harsin, was one of the pioneers of Funny Car racing in the early 1970s, and at one point, Harsin thought his future would be in racing cars and not coaching football.
Harsin’s father was a huge part of his childhood, and he’s used the past few months to strengthen the connection with his son. He recently went on a whirlwind football tour to several colleges with his son, Davis, a rising senior at Eagle High in the Boise suburbs and quarterback prospect at the college level.
Some of Davis’ teammates and their fathers were also part of the tour, and as much as anything, Harsin soaked up the chance to be a dad, listen to his son ask questions to coaches and see the recruiting process from a whole different perspective.
They visited Pac-12 schools and smaller schools, too, from Oregon and Cal to UC Davis and Idaho State. Idaho State coach Cody Hawkins is the son of Dan Hawkins, who hired Harsin at Boise State in 2001 as a graduate assistant.
“It was really cool hearing Davis’ thoughts and what he got out of sitting in some of the meetings and watching the practices,” Harsin said. “It’s an experience I’ll always remember, being able to go to all these places with my son, tap into some of our connections with past coaching colleagues … and do it as a dad and not so much as a coach.”
During their travels, Harsin couldn’t help but think back to a conversation he used to have with Petersen at Boise State.
“I used to tell Pete, ‘Wouldn’t it be awesome if coaches could take a year, like a sabbatical, and go out there and see other things and get a different perspective on stuff?'” Harsin recalled.
Petersen’s response was always the same: “Yeah, that’s called getting fired.”
Harsin has heard from numerous coaches since his firing, including Mack Brown, for whom he was offensive coordinator at Texas. Harsin said former Duke and Ole Miss coach David Cutcliffe, now working for the SEC, gave him some of the best advice.
“He said that when he got fired [at Ole Miss] that he jumped right back in and it wasn’t the right thing to do,” Harsin said. “I have tremendous respect for David Cutcliffe and just his wisdom on things. He told me to take some time, and I had that in my mind already, and that conversation with him only helped.”
Former Washington coach Jimmy Lake sent Harsin a so-called game plan for how to cope with losing a job. There were about 15 things on the list. Among them: Don’t panic. Be yourself. Have no regrets. Get out of the house.
Another one was to do something you’ve always wanted to do.
For Harsin, that was spending more quality time with his entire family. Both of his daughters, Devyn and Dayn, are also in the Boise area. Devyn is an esthetician, and Dayn (named after former Wisconsin Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne) is a junior at Boise State.
“I feel as good as I’ve ever felt, refreshed,” Harsin said. “My body feels good. My mind feels good. I feel younger and have a lot in my tank to go do whatever I choose to do.
“Right now, that’s enjoying my family.”
HARSIN IS NOT interested in looking back, even though he says his short time at Auburn would help him be more discerning, more selective and more inquisitive when and if he decides to go back down the coaching road.
“The first thing I would say is that I would ask different questions,” Harsin said. “The football piece is just one piece. It’s everything else around the program that really matters. You can solve a lot of problems by asking the right questions, not the football part so much, but everything else.”
One of the most challenging things for Harsin when he took the job was that he arrived with COVID-19 restrictions still in place. A frequent criticism of Harsin was that he didn’t make enough of an effort to get to know key power brokers and establish himself in the Auburn community, an approach his critics say also spilled over into recruiting.
“It was difficult to get out and see anybody, to meet people,” he said. “And from that point, in some ways, it felt like you were playing from behind.”
New Auburn coach Hugh Freeze is the school’s third head coach in four seasons. Auburn has fired its past five coaches and paid a total of $44.2 million in buyout money to the past three.
Harsin isn’t in the business of giving advice, but he’s more convinced than ever that complete alignment from the president to the board of trustees to the athletic director is critical to win consistently in the SEC, especially when you’re playing Alabama and Georgia every year.
“But we don’t want to make that our problem any longer,” Harsin said. “That’s Auburn’s problem. We’ve moved on and being home has never felt better.”